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Politics

Weekly Roundup: When's the Election? And Finally, Some Policy

October 19, 2012 - 6:00pm

In the second to last week before voting starts, Florida this past week played its usual role as a state where presidential candidates go to make or break their fortunes. But the state also may have emerged as a place where other elections are also competitive.

For the better part of the last decade, hard-to-predict elections farther down on the ticket have been few and far between in Florida, due at least in part to the way districts have been drawn. But new redistricting rules recently enshrined in the state Constitution actually might have worked, at least a little, to make for more competitive elections.

Early this week, a couple of state Senate races were actually thought hard to call (at least until the last few days when Republicans seemed to surge on a number of fronts).

Political watchers still had their Senate eyes fixed on the race between Republican Dorothy Hukill and Democrat Frank Bruno in Northeast Florida, and the race between two incumbents, Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who were drawn into the same very competitive district. There's also plenty of interest in the Orlando-Kissimmee area between Democratic Rep. Darren Soto and Republican Will McBride.

When was the last time there were three state Senate races that were truly competitive?

All six campaigns were busy this week, along with several House candidates who were actually campaigning in the last several days with voting set to start next weekend on Oct. 27.

Competitive House races are something that haven't been seen a lot in recent years. This time around, lots of House candidates are still really going at it in late October, in contrast to past years when lots of races were sewn up by qualifying day.

In a couple of races, the candidates were busy, not on the campaign trail, but in court.

A state appeals court on Friday sided with Democrat Rep. Jeff Clemens in a case over the contested Senate District 27 race in Palm Beach County. The 1st District Court of Appeal refused to change his 17-vote win over fellow Democrat Mack Bernard, who then conceded, essentially putting Clemens in the Senate.

Another contested House election from South Florida was decided in court this week in favor of Rep. Barbara Watson, whose narrow win over fellow Democratic Rep. John Patrick Julien was upheld by a Leon County circuit court. While Julien has no plans to appeal further in court, he is considering contesting Watson's seating in the House, which under the state Constitution is the ultimate arbiter of who can be a member.

Most Senate and House candidates, however, spent the week scouring their district for last-minute undecideds, hitting the Tiger Bay and chicken dinner circuit yet again.

It was also evident that in presidential politics, Florida is still the magic kingdom.

Joe Biden was in Sun City on Friday on the heels of Paul Ryan's visit to the area this week. Mitt Romney was to be in Daytona Beach on Friday evening and his wife Ann Romney was in Florida, too.

Both presidential candidates will be in the state next week for their final debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton Monday evening. Obama will stick around Tuesday morning to campaign at the Delray Beach Tennis Center.

It would be a stretch to say that attention fully turned this week to policy matters, but the faint beginnings of the policy debates expected in the Capitol this coming year began to take shape.

Executive agencies this week had to put out their proposed budgets for next year an admittedly early event in the long and subject-to-major-change budgeting process, but still a good window into agency priorities.

Among the highlights: the Department of Corrections hinted that it may look for more privatization, though it hasn't nailed down any specific plans. The prisons agency was at the center of a huge fight this past year over plans to privatize the prisons in the southern third of the state.

That effort failed in a rare dramatic vote in the Senate this year, so one might question the legislative appetite for more debate on the idea. But the Senate could be a different place this year (see above mention of competitive legislative races).

The big opponents of prison privatization are both gone from the Senate end of the Capitol. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, is out of office entirely come next month and Sen. Mike Fasano, who led the revolt against the prison privatization plan last session, will be Rep. Mike Fasano come next month. He was term-limited and so ran to return to the House, and won't have an opponent on the November ballot.

The Department of Juvenile Justice made it clear it wants to upgrade several facilities, while the Department of Children and Families put lawmakers on notice that it believes in helping parents of children in the welfare system with drug treatment.

The Department of Economic Opportunity let it be known that the state isn't happy about throwing money at an animation company that later went bankrupt. In its legislative budget request, DEO asked lawmakers to set aside $500,000 to hire lawyers to go after the company, Digital Domain, to try to recoup some of the millions the state lost when it gave the company incentives only to see it close quickly and lay off almost everyone.

The state license plate agency, which technically goes by the unwieldy name of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said it plans to push forward with a plan to roll out new license plates that are more readable so cameras in toll booths don't make as many mistakes that cost the state money.

The agency also wants to centralize the distribution of plates, which is currently done by the various county tax collectors, but those tax collectors said this week they'll fight to keep that part of their job, in part because they fear they'll be blamed if some vendor gets it wrong.

That issue will be discussed this coming week at the Tuesday Cabinet meeting.

There was still more discussion of policy this week in Tallahassee with two potentially wide-reaching and controversial issues being floated.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz said he wants to tighten state ethics and elections laws and maybe make some changes to the campaign finance system. The Niceville Republican said he wants to toughen conflict-of-interest rules for lawmakers and make it easier for people to find out about their legislator's finances.

One of his more controversial ideas may be to clamp down on elected officials who also get paychecks from other government agencies. Gaetz said he would like to prevent elected officials from accepting other public-sector jobs think university professor -- if they don't have the background or "prior competency" to qualify for the jobs. There's no detailed proposal yet, so watch for the issue to evolve over the coming several months.

And Gov. Rick Scott, who has never looked very comfortable in political settings, got involved in a policy debate this week when he reacted to the strategic plan of the state Board of Education, which clumsily, perhaps, injected open discussion of racial disparities into the debate over how to eliminate those disparities.

With an ultimate goal of getting all students to test at grade level, the board earlier this month put out a blueprint for improving student performance that included lower short-term achievement goals for black and Hispanic students than their white peers.

The chairman of the board, Gary Chartrand, said it only makes sense that it will take longer for some underachieving students to reach certain benchmarks because they're starting from a disadvantage.

That those underachieving students are often minorities isn't always voiced, but the department set its goals by race rather than economic status or current achievement status. That led some black lawmakers to complain that the plan smacked of "the racism of low expectations," to borrow a phrase from former Gov. Jeb Bush.

After the controversy came to light, Scott put out a statement acknowledging that the plan was poorly communicated.

"The actions taken last week by the State Board of Education in adopting their strategic plan did not clearly articulate our shared commitment to fully close that achievement gap for all students, regardless of race, geography, gender or other circumstance," Scott said in a statement this week.

Just as Scott has reached out of late to some of his previous adversaries such as the state teachers' union on other issues, his willingness to concede the board's badly worded plan bought him some good will with African-American Democrats, at least for now.

STORY OF THE WEEK: While the looming election continues to dominate the political and government landscape, the broad strokes of the legislative year began to take shape this week as state agencies put out budget outlines and the incoming Senate president rolled out an ethics idea.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "In an effort to maximize the state's resources during difficult economic times, the department proposes privatizing additional facilities." That one sparse sentence and only that sentence -- spelled out the Department of Corrections' current thinking on the possibility of more efforts to privatize prisons.

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